I definitely want to take thoughtful time over these impressions. I was excited to be able to get this from Amazon - since there are no author readings this side of the pond that I can tell. I know she is coming to a Lit Breakfast in KL in July and that Kenny is probably going to do her poster! Finally though, I wanted to celebrate another published Malaysian author.
I found that this novel separated into a few levels for me: there was this whole Nuwa creation myth level and Hindu Goddesses; there were each of the women photographed and a sort of political/ feminist statement for each one linked to an aspect of their sexuality/womanhood, including the opening story of Lakshmi which underlined the plight of brides in India who displeased their in-laws and were set on fire and killed. Unsurprisingly, the level I enjoyed the most, and which I identified most with as a reader was the story of Nin, the photographer, who is a Malaysian woman now living in the USA. Her chapters were interspersed with each of the photo subjects. They reveal her tragic family story, and chart her journey to find the locked away passion in herself. I found the language of her thoughts and narrative extremely entertaining, lyrical and well written. I like looking at her angst. I like wondering how she will resolve it. I like it that her thoughts are peppered with film and music references of this time, and that she has a thing for Russell Crowe's mouth!
I am trying to write without any spoilers in case you intend to read this. There are some wonderful nuggets of Malaysian tastes. The highlights of this novel for me, were the excruciating protrait of the unique Chinese familial ability to brand shame deep into your soul, with no recourse or redemption. You bear this searing blackness and it drives you to extraordinary lengths. Just fantastic examples of this, I cried buckets. Also, Nin's desire to Not Be the eldest - very poignantly written. More buckets. Favourite chapter? Chapter 6: the discussion on earlobes - this is so very Malaysian I really chuckled over this. My family is also obsessed with lucky earlobes, and I will confess looking surreptitiously at my future husband's earlobes when I met him.
As much as I carry on enjoying the writing, I do get cross with the plot. It is an ambitious and courageous plot. Very modern and disconnected, flying between times. Her writing on sexuality is frank and confident - she is the recipient of the Henry Miller Award after all, where readers of an e-zine vote on the hottest writing. Maybe I am supposed to get annoyed with Nin as her "Water" self - a neutral vessel, unfilled. I wonder why she can't naturally grow to balance her Fire and Water, and there needs to be so many devices involved. The characters to be photographed aren't very deeply rooted, they are transient despite their very real plights - her journey carries her relentlessly on to the next thing before we can reflect much, she makes no difference to them. There is a lot of symbolic mythology here, but I am uncomfortable that nothing of the creation myth and the Hindu myth connects on a heart level with these characters - or least my readerliness (this is not a word...) cannot detect it. The blurb on the jacket says,"Firewife is a poetic, exploration of contemporary Asian women unknowingly connected over time." Poetic, I'll certainly grant - and yes! an exploration - but I am left still unknowing about how to make some of the connections. Maybe I'll have to read it again, I may be simply too tired to think!